Written by William Goldman
Directed by George Roy Hill
Some movies survive the test of time, others don’t. Sometimes choices made in regard to a film seem right for the time, and later on, don’t hold up as well.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was released in 1969. Then as now, it’s a fine picture. It has all the makings of what a classic needs to be and for that reason, it holds up so well to viewing all these years later. The stars Paul Newman and Robert Redford have a humorous friendly affection between them which is nice to see. There’s a reason these two were tagged again a few years later to play off of each other again in The Sting.
This is the western fable at its best. Traditionally, the “good guys” are the ones to root for, but here it’s played to root the opposite. It’s easy to do when the “good guys” they are stealing from are the robber barons of the railroad era, people we have long ago learned were not noble, upstanding citizens but people determined to exploit the working class and throw them away when they could no longer profitable for them. It makes it easy to blur the lines of just what is “good” versus what is “bad”. Butch and Sundance no doubt were not the “Robin Hood” types, stealing from the rich and giving it to the poor, but knowing just who they were stealing from makes it quite easy to root for them.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid tells the story of the two western outlaws at the time the law was beginning to catch up to them. They were notorious in the west for their bank and train robberies. Once they feel the heat too much, they make a break out of the West for Bolivia, believing there to be greater fortunes to be had. Along for the ride is Sundance’s girlfriend, Etta. The tale it weaves is full of humor and affection as the friendship between the three characters is explored.
How can bank robbery, train robbery and the like be humorous? Just listen to the sheriff trying to drum up a posse to pursue Butch & Sundance and the Hole in the Wall Gang – he sounds a lot like a coach in a locker room and not a particularly good one. The script was written by William Goldman and is brilliant. The story goes that Steve McQueen and Paul Newman were going to split the cost of the script and develop it themselves, cast in the lead roles, but didn’t move fast enough. Enter George Roy Hill as director and move Newman to the role of Butch with the casting of Robert Redford in the role of Sundance, and it was pure movie magic.
Newman was the star at the time, and Redford was still fairly unknown. His largest role was in Barefoot in the Park alongside Jane Fonda. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was a breakout role for him. The chemistry he weaves not just with Newman but with Katharine Ross as Etta seems to be a perfectly natural friendship between the three as if they had known each other all their lives. It’s a testimony to the abilities of the three actors, including the often under-appreciated Ross. The scene where she tells Sundance “I won’t watch you die…” is one of the most poignant while still leaving the affection in place as well as the somewhat whimsical tone of the film. Likewise, later on, when she states she is leaving their trio, it is those haunting words that signal the audience what is coming without being overt about it. Yes, you have to be paying attention to fully appreciate all that is happening.
George Roy Hill created some of the best scenes I’ve ever seen in any film in the western genre. From the seemingly endless chase culminating in one of the most well-known scenes in movies where the two jump from a cliff to avoid capture to the “down time” of being with Etta while Butch gives her a ride on “the future” – a bicycle, to their attempt to “go straight” and become payroll guards, the film seems to be a string of action scenes not overplayed for gore and violence strung together with moments that build the characters in my eyes.
The scenery is beautiful. And a lot of credit must go to the cinematographer, Conrad Hall. The shots of Butch & Sundance riding through the canyons seem the perfect setup showing the canyons with the sun angled on them in the background. It had to be the nearest thing to a perfect camera shot I’ve ever seen. I’ve also never seen such a blue sky as there is in some of the shots. Absolutely stunning.
Here comes the moment where I disagree with so many others on this film. I found the music to be lacking and dated. I am sure it was fine for its time back in 1969 and even seemed appropriate, but all these years later it seems out of place. Particularly the ba-da-ba chants during the Bolivian bank heists and subsequent chase scenes. It’s really distracting and would have been better with just the instrumental portion rather than any vocals.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is definitely one of the top films ever made. If you’ve never seen it, make sure you do. If you haven’t seen it recently, rent it again.
DVD Bonus Materials:
• Commentary with Director George Roy Hill, Lyricist Hal David, Associate Producer Robert Crawford, and Cinematographer Conrad Hill
• 1994 Interviews with Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Katharine Ross, William Goldman, Burt Bacharach, and also a discussion of the different versions of what happened in regard to the film.
• Documentary: The Making of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Categories: Movie Reviews